Risk assessments are an essential part of everyday life, and something that we should embrace rather than huff and humbug about. No one should go to work, school, on a trip to the shops, or out on the tennis court, and experience a significant possibility of getting hurt or sustaining a foreseeable injury. In most environments, it is easy to carry out risk assessments because the people in them understand the risks that they may be exposed to, and while you still need to tick boxes. You can usually rely on them to keep themselves safe to the greater extent, and not to do unnecessarily dumb or dangerous things.
Risk assessments in primary schools
But that isn’t the case with most children, and primary school children in particular. Their young age leaves them open to many common dangers, simply because they haven’t been exposed to many of the perils that adults see as obvious, and maybe only see fun or something new where a hazard lurks. Who can honestly say that, as a primary school child, they didn’t look at one of those electric pencil sharpeners and think “I wonder what would happen if I stuck my finger in there”?
Actually, pencil sharpener/finger incidents are remarkably low (it’s about 3 in 10,000), but you get the idea. Schools are filled with many potential hazards, as there are young minds wanting to push the boundaries of what they know and understand. But since we cannot realistically remove all of the hazards, we have to make an assessment of how dangerous they actually are, and form a judgment on whether we should ignore, guard, or remove. And that is where a good risk assessment comes in.
All this means that when completing a risk assessment in a primary school you should go deeper than you normally would and assume far less than you might when doing the same thing in a place fully populated by adults. Added to this, a primary school is where we start to introduce a number of principles such as cooking, DIY (we all eagerly await the day our little monsters can start fixing the things they break!), swimming, wood work, physical exercise, needlework and, of course, sharpening pencils with the electric pencil sharpener.
Any of those have the potential for life-changing injuries, so the school needs to be able to minimise the possibility of any of these, and that’s even before we factor in things like COVID.
Tips for carrying out your risk assessment
Carrying out a risk assessment is usually an intense process and it becomes more so in a primary school, where you need to be extra vigilant. Let’s face it – it’s not easy to get into the mind of a 5-year-old to work out what seems like it could be a great idea! So, here are our seven top tips for preparing for and carrying out a risk assessment in a primary school.
- Have a casual walkaround before you start the assessment. Just strolling around a school, taking your time to absorb the ambiance and just observe can tell you loads. This can be much more effective if you don’t let others know that you are on a precursor to a carrying out a formal review; there’s nothing quite like the term ‘risk assessment’ to put people on their guards and that’s when they start hiding all the electric pencil sharpeners just because they know it’s not possible to stop kids sticking their fingers in them!
A risk assessment should be carried out in conditions that most closely resemble the everyday situation rather than some overly safe and orchestrated classroom, and you will always have people trying to demonstrate safety rather than proving it. Don’t tell ‘em that you are coming around and confront them with the truth about little Johnny and the electrical sockets once you’ve completed the assessment. Sneaky but usually necessary.
- Think outside the box. The primary point of a risk assessment is to decide who might be harmed and how that might occur, but it’s all too easy to just pay lip service to the paperwork and not really delve deep enough into the potential problems. Issues that an adult might instantly recognise as a potential hazard might not register straight away with a young child, particularly if they haven’t encountered the situation before. While it’s unlikely that primary school kids haven’t ever encountered fire, you could do well by not assuming – remember, to assume makes and ASS out of U and ME both – that they do understand the danger of things like fire, and Bunsen Burners in the lab. It only takes a few seconds of a teacher looking away for a finger to test just how hot that blue flame is, and the subsequent trip to A&E.
The situation is similar with electricity; we want to teach our children the fundamentals of life and science but have to balance that against the inherent dangers of them, and the possibility of them sticking their fingers or something else conducting in a wall socket. This is made all the more dangerous by experiments such as with a Van de Graff generator where we want them to touch electricity to prove a principle but not so with many simple PCB layout experiment. Don’t touch this, touch that; it can all get pretty confusing. What’s safe? You make the choice.
As a risk assessor, you need to consider the possibility of a risk becoming dangerous and that means taking a pragmatic view on what constitutes a risk and what is acceptable.
- Consider sports. The HSE make it abundantly clear that mistaken health and safety concerns should not prevent children from expanding their learning and pursuing their abilities. Of course, most sports are going to be a bit contact-y, but as an assessor, you have to weight that rough and tumble against the real possibility of a child being injured.
On the whole, school sports are generally administered by professionals who can prevent sports becoming dangerously out of hand, so a risk assessment usually needs only to consider the equipment used. Most sports injuries in schools arise from a poorly-maintained or worn-out equipment and, as an assessor, you need to be able to look at the sports provisions and assess whether they are up to the task (n.b., you need to make sure that you look at any relevant equipment and safety logs as part of your assessment). Children should be able to take part in even fairly robust sports such as football and hockey, as well as encountering dangerous environments like water, but they should be able to do it safely.
- Think about bullying. A primary school is one of the first social situations in which children first flocculate and is a prime place to learn the social skills that will stay with them through their lives. That means it’s also a place for social interaction to step into darker areas and become bullying. Schools will have processes and procedures in place to deal with irksome areas like bullying, but are they sufficient? As a risk assessor, you can make a judgement on whether they are appropriate or not.
- Don’t forget the staff. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the possible dangers to children and forget that there are also hazards which can affect the staff too. A risk assessment doesn’t just consider physical aspects and should also cover the effects of stress on teachers and you need to ensure that the school has procedures in place to cover this. Tiredness, screen time, mental wellbeing; these are all areas where you need to be seeing robust procedures to protect the staff.
- COVID-19. It’s unlikely that you will but it is now imperative that we build COVID-friendly forethought into our children from an early age. Social distancing and cleaning processes should be second nature, and schools should be reinforcing this. Unfortunately, with the current position shifting from Government and the science community, what is acceptable and allowed can become as easy to nail down as jelly, but for you as the assessor, it becomes a judgment call.
- Make sure that your training is up to date. Do you really know enough about risk assessments and the current law to be able to make measured decisions on what is safe and what is likely to have little Johnny’s hand off? Carrying out a few iAM on-line training courses can act either as a memory jog or a source of new information that you may need for your assessment. The iAM training modules are designed to give you the relevant information without turning you into Health & Safety police with a distorted view of what is safe and what is likely to mince a child, and we can all do with a little sanity in this difficult area.
Risk assessments are only going to become more important and it is great practice to do them in an environment like a school where you have a huge mix of ages and abilities, rather than an office where everyone is comparable. But then, life wouldn’t be fun if it was easy, would it?
If you're interested in a scalable safety management system that helps simplify risk assessments for you and your school, check out iAM Compliant.